10 Remarkable Things About Japan

Remarkable Japan – #06 – Three non-negotiable temple visits

A Zen Garden, a giant Buddha and a temple coated in gold. What more could you want?

You could dedicate a lifetime just to visiting Japan’s tens of thousands of temples. Spending just half an hour on a 24/7 schedule at each temple in Kyoto alone would leave you six weeks later with still many more to visit. So let me make it simple; these are the three temples that you cannot miss out on. That’s non-negotiable.

Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) – Kyoto

Let’s start with the shiniest of the lot. How shiny can a temple get? How about covered-in-gold-leaf-shiny. It’s all that’s left of what was originally a retirement complex for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, converted according to his will into a Zen Buddhist temple in 1408. It would be superb if the beautiful temple you see below had indeed stood the test of time. Unfortunately, that is not the case. After a monk burnt down the original building, a reconstructed temple with gold leaf over the entire top two stories was unveiled in 1955. In 1984, even more gold leaf was applied to give the building the durable brilliance, which remains to this day.

Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Temple) from across the lake
No surface left uncoated on the top two stories of the Kinkaku-ji

While touching the gold leafed exterior will land you in all kinds of trouble, there’s a tastier way to turn your hands green. Grab some of the Matcha Green Tea soft serve from the café on the way out. Tourist trap? Tentatively. Delicious? Definitely.

Impossible to resist Matcha Green Tea soft serve

Ryoan-ji (Temple of the Dragon at Peace) – Kyoto

So you’ve noticed the ‘ji’ pattern by now? You guessed it; ‘ji’ means ‘Buddhist temple’ (not to be confused with ‘jo’, meaning ‘castle’). The temple’s Rock Garden is as peaceful as mid-morning Kyoto gets. Visitors line its edges to gaze into the calming perfection of the carefully-raked sea of white pebbles, trying also to find a vantage point from which they can see all 15 of the large, moss-encircled rocks at once (spoiler alert: it’s intentionally impossible to see more than 14 of them from any spot, until you reach enlightenment, that is!).

The Ryoan-ji Rock Garden complete with spectators

Look out also for the slightly surreal persimmon trees surrounding the temple’s pond. If you ever find yourself bequeathed with persimmon fruit with no clue how to prepare it, chill it (the fruit, not yourself) and then chop it in half. Sprinkle on some lemon juice and sugar, or add a dollop of cream, before tucking in with a spoon. Not yet ripe? Extract the tannin to brew some sake, or dilute the bitter-tasting flesh in water to make some insect repellent. A versatile fruit indeed.

A persimmon tree lining the Ryoan-ji pond

Todai-ji (Great Eastern Temple) – Nara

Of course, I’ve saved my favourite until last. Just about an hour from Kyoto you could find yourself in Nara, at the threshold of the biggest wooden building in the world. And that’s even after it was reconstructed in 1692 to be only two thirds the original size.

The Todai-ji’s Daibutsuden (AKA Big Buddha Hall)

The Todai-ji is the reason Japan’s capital had to be moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784. So powerful was its position as head of all provincial Buddhist temples in Japan, that its impact on political rule became a concern. Today though, it is better known as the home of the ‘Big Buddha’.

This 15-metre bronze statue remains an engineering marvel for its sheer scale and complex casting, given its age. In as beautiful a ceremony as one can imagine, the Buddha was ‘awakened’ in 752 by painting on his eyes. It is said that the thousands of monks in attendance were able to feel connected to the brush itself by holding onto one of the many attached lengths of string.


But how is it possible that this massive structure remains in one piece after centuries of endured earthquakes? Forgive me whilst I indulge in my inner geek for a moment. The photo below shows one design feature that explains the temple’s resilience. The connections between the beams and the roof aren’t rigid. Instead, they have the freedom to slide in response to an earthquake. Genius, I say.

The anti-earthquake design of the Todai-ji’s rafters

Don’t feel dispirited while we depart from our final temple of this mini tour; you’re in for a surprise! Students are to the city of Oxford what deer are to Nara. Almost every public space is frequented by both people and (mostly) benign deer, whom you are free to feed and stroke. They are a curious bunch though, making sure to investigate anything hanging out of your backpack!

The deer of Nara browsing the souvenir shops

So there you have it. Three temples in Japan, which you cannot afford not to visit. If you can’t find your personal favourite on this list – and believe it really should be there – do let me know!

10 Remarkable Things About Japan

Remarkable Japan – #05 – Miraikan: the museum of the future, of the future

For much of my childhood, the spring half-term break meant only one thing; time to voyage into central London for our annual visit to the Science Museum, in South Kensington. We went with great anticipation to see the space satellites hanging from the ceiling, the aircraft engines and the Apollo 10 capsule.

And yet, this is the very problem, which the Science Museum is only beginning to address. You spend a great deal of time looking at the amazing works of the past few centuries, but not a lot of time interacting with them. The lack of opportunity to get stuck in leaves many current generations of kids disengaged with static museum galleries.

Don’t get me wrong. I have always loved the Science Museum, and probably always will. But in Tokyo, I found a museum that felt like the Science Museum of the future.

The Miraikan describes its logo as “an image of satellites orbiting the globe, cell division, various terrestrial networks … and the motion of electrons”

The Miraikan (AKA the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation) in the bay side area of Tokyo, is one of the most notable museums I have ever visited. Every exhibit engages the visitor to touch and experiment with almost everything on show.

For example, visitors could try to keep their balance and manoeuvre across the floor with simply a gentle lean, on Honda’s new ‘UNI-CUB’ mobility device.

Trying to keep my balance on the Honda UNI-CUB

You could also book a conversation with an android called the ‘Otonaroid’, and watch it respond in real time to your verbal and body language.

The Otonaroid android will see you now

The only feature of the museum that visitors were not encouraged to touch, feel or prod was the live demonstration of Honda’s ASIMO robot. Mesmerising nonetheless!

Honda ASIMO showing off his moves

But the most impressive feature of the Miraikan is not its endless encouragement to engage with its pieces, nor its amazing array of scientific and technological artefacts. The Miraikan is absolutely worth a visit because it’s not afraid to make its visitors think; to ask difficult questions about their attitudes towards technology and environmentally-sustainable innovation.

A mechanical representation of the internet allowed visitors to send data packets in the form of black and white billiard balls, from terminal to terminal.

And while this museum wasn’t designed for kids, it sure knew how to get them inspired to find answers to these difficult questions.

In one exhibit, a game invited the visitor to envisage an ideal world 50 years from now, and digitally projected their vision onto massive contoured panels in front of them. The player would then be asked to work back from that vision to make year-by-year decisions over agriculture, urban development and waste management. While inconsequential in the short term, the game would show them how these decisions brought them closer or further away from their long-term goal.

Visitors are invited to gaze into the animations created through the LED panels coating the Miraikan’s signature exhibit; the ‘Geo-Cosmos’

Another game featured a floor space that had been transformed with projectors into a digital ‘playground’ called Anagura. Visitors walked around with their digital doppelgänger – the ‘online you’, made up of hypothetical personal information – in tow. You could then interact with other visitors by choosing to withhold or share your personal information. The idea is that by creating connections between disparate data sets, humanity is thus equipped with an expanding knowledge bank that it can use to tackle major challenges. I have never seen such a unique and engaging method for teaching people about the benefits and risks of their digital data.

The Miraikan should perhaps be renamed the National Museum of Emerging Strategies for Science and Innovation. Past generations were inspired by museums showing them stupendous visions of the future. I believe the Miraikan does something more important and far more inspiring; it turns the tables and instead asks its visitors the question; what stupendous visions do you have for the future?

10 Remarkable Things About Japan

Remarkable Japan – #04 – Shinjuku: a city within a city

I spent most of my time in Tokyo in its most vibrant ‘ward’ out of the 23 that make up the capital, and that’s not just because I slept a few nights in one of their many capsule hotels. Shinjuku has a bit of everything, and really needs a couple of days for a full exploration. So where do you start?

The very noticeable entrance to one of the streets of the Kabukicho nightlife district

How about we start at your likely point of arrival. Both visitors and regular commuters will tell you that Shinjuku Station is busy. But how busy? South Kensington station may feel like gridlock at rush hour during school half term, with 92,790 daily passengers passing through its gates in 2015. London King’s Cross only saw 91,400 daily passengers in the same year. What about the US, and New York’s Grand Central Terminal? That is indeed a busy station, seeing 750,000 daily passengers.

But then we see the 2015 numbers for Shinjuku station. Are you ready? Here they are: 3.42 million passengers daily. Shinjuku is no exception to the rule when it comes to Japanese train stations. Only six of the 51 busiest train stations in the world are located outside Japan.

On which side of the road is the station? Both sides; it’s massive

Amazingly, despite being 6,000 miles from the nearest London Underground station, the green-coloured soul of the District Line had followed me all the way to Tokyo, manifesting as the Yamanote Line. Tokyo’s most important JR network train line; it takes you in a one hour-long loop through pretty much every one of Tokyo’s important stations. As I took this train so often, you would guess that I’d be pretty familiar with the correct exit to take to get back to the capsule hotel. Nope. There are over 200 station exits, and several different exits for leaving the Yamanote line platform itself! Taking the first exit I could find to ground level, and navigating with the skyscraper landmarks from there, tended to work best.

Hello again old (green) friend – a Yamanote Line train

After all that, it’s time to unwind in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. I visited during autumn when the leaves were beginning to brown, creating a beautiful patchwork canopy with the remaining green trees. The looming skyscrapers act as a reminder of how amazing it is that a park of this size exists in the middle of a necessarily high-rising Tokyo skyline. Having more than a dozen different varieties of cherry tree, the park remains one of the best places in Tokyo to witness the cherry blossom season, between mid March and late April.

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Looking out into Shinjuku and the Yoyogi Building from the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

The park is split into three different garden styles, so you’ll almost certainly find something to your taste. The ‘Japanese Traditional Garden’ is by far the prettiest and most ornate, featuring several stone lanterns and the 90-year old Kyu-Goryo-Tei (AKA the Taiwan Pavilion). It does seem that the landscape architect wasn’t terribly impressed with British horticulture; the ‘English Landscape Garden’ is basically one big expanse of green lawn!

The view of the Japanese Traditional Garden from the Taiwan Pavilion
The Kyu-Goryo-Tei, or ‘Taiwan Pavilion’
Stone lantern yes; birdhouse no
As the name suggests, the ‘winter-flowering cherry’ tree flowers during mild winter weather rather than during spring

Now, the sun has set but Shinjuku has only just woken up! If you only have a few hours to visit the area, make a beeline for seeing Shinjuku in the evening. The place turns full Blade Runner after dark. And for good reason, rumour has it that the visuals for the film were heavily inspired by this bright and bold streetscape.

Shops along the arterial Yasukuni Dori street

Come dinner time, you’ll likely be on the hunt for a great new restaurant. Typically, this would involve going off a few recommendations or scanning the menus as you wind your way up and down the streets. But in Japan, and especially in skyscraper-dense places like Shinjuku, you’ll miss a lot of great options if sticking to this tried and tested restaurant searching technique. All those columns of multi-coloured signs lining the buildings literally indicate the establishment you’ll find on that very floor. Even the capsule hotel I stayed in only occupied around half of the available floors in its building. Think vertical as well as horizontal.

The pedestrian crossing outside Shibuya station, not even at rush hour

As a bonus, it’s definitely worth taking the three subway stops south to Shibuya just to witness possibly the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Just outside Shibuya station; up to 2,500 busy commuters and shoppers line up to take part in this chaotic but orderly dance every time the lights change!

10 Remarkable Things About Japan

Remarkable Japan – #03 – You ate Onomonom-what?

OK, say it with me: Oko-nomi-yaki. There you are. What is it? Well, the name derives from the words okonomi (“what you like”) and yaki (“grill”). So yes, this literally translates to “whatever you like, fried”!

Okonomiyaki prepared and served on a colossal diner-style hotplate, at Okonomimura, Hiroshima

But don’t discard this dish as a tourist honeypot. Okonomiyaki has its origins in the 16th century, and experienced a resurgence in popularity with survivors of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and the Second World War. A simple dish to make with the limited ingredients that were available in a recovering Japan; it proved a great snack for children.

Today, okonomiyaki has taken on a life of its own. If you have to hand an egg-based batter and some sliced cabbage, you already have the essentials. Beyond that, the choice is entirely yours. Popular additions include thinly-sliced pork (*cough* not bacon! *cough*), grated cheese, kimchi, sweetcorn and even octopus.

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Enjoying some sake in anticipation, at Okonomimura, Hiroshima

What you see above is the Hiroshima-style dish from the fantastic Okonomimura restaurant, which is unique in that the ingredients are layered up rather than mixed. Some claim this makes it a “Japanese Pizza”, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

A front row seat at Okonomimura, Hiroshima

You’ll have the most fun with this dish seeing it cooked in front of you on a massive hotplate, or teppan. Now that you’ve watched the pros, it’s time to pluck up the courage to have a go at cooking it yourself in one of many ‘grill-it-yourself’ restaurants!

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It’s your turn! Okonomiyaki ingredients brought to table in bowls, at Hyotan, Tokyo

I had my own okonomiyaki initiation at Hyotan in Tokyo, where I was educated by the very welcoming staff in the more typical Kansai-style method of preparing this dish. The thin pork slices were cut up and then mixed together with the other ingredients, before being poured on the hotplate table and moulded into an omelette-like disk.

Not so bad for a first attempt at a mixture (with help from the staff), at Hyotan, Tokyo

At this point I put the camera away and got stuck in, making sure I gave the mix a good five minutes on each side. The dark brown appearance comes from spreading on a thick okonomiyaki sauce, which has a taste somewhere between Hoisin and Worcestershire sauce. The finishing touches included a drizzle of (Japanese) mayonnaise and a spoonful of Aonori (seaweed) flakes and Katsuobushi (dried, fermented and smoked tuna flakes).

The finished article (Photo Credit)

So you have the ready-to-eat okonomiyaki on a searing hot table. Now what? Time to bring out the spatulas! Typically, holding one spatula in each hand, you slice up the okonomiyaki into bite size chunks, which you then eat from your plate with chopsticks. Casting a glance at neighbouring tables however, I noticed that some diners preferred to thinly spread the mixture over the hotplate and simply scrape off portions as it cooked.

For a dish which – like the Mark I Mini car – started life as a cheap and robust way to keep the population going in difficult times, okonomiyaki has blossomed into a culinary experience that combines sights, smells and flavours in surprising ways.

Your Okonomiyaki tools

But there is one more thing! Still got a sweet tooth that needs satisfying? Head out to one of many shops in Japan selling the softest soft-serve ice cream you’ve every tried. Cremia has become one of the top ‘softcream’ choices in Japan, a country known for its culinary expertise but less known for its love of ice cream.

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Just take my money! Cremia soft-serve from Ueno, Tokyo

The Cremia posters highlight all the features of its signature soft-serve in a cone, the same way you would advertise a revolutionary new gadget. A bit over the top you might say. Then again, Cremia’s unbelievable texture alone earns them that liberty.

10 Remarkable Things About Japan

Remarkable Japan – #02 – How Often Did You Bang Your Head in There?

Only once, I promise! And that’s because the TV was unexpectedly in the way. Having said that, you haven’t had the full Japanese Capsule Hotel experience if you haven’t forgotten you’re sleeping in a 1x1x2 metre box and whacked your head on the ceiling of your little home from home (at least once).

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And here’s your room, at the Shinjuku Kuyakusho-mae Capsule Hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo

I’m sure you’ve seen an article about capsule hotels before. Honestly, trying one of these hotels was high up on my bucket list.

But aren’t they cramped and claustrophobic places to stay? If like me, you spend your travelling days covering who knows how many kilometres by foot, you won’t notice much once your head hits the pillow (or the TV, again. OK fine; I banged my head twice).

Despite it being Japan, not every TV news story was about robotics, I assure you

The capsules themselves are surprisingly well-equipped. The ones shown here are all from the Shinjuku Kuyakusho-mae Capsule Hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo (which I’d highly recommend). Yes, they all have their own TV, as well as an alarm clock and a socket to keep your phone topped up. Not bad at all, though the hotel was alive with the sound of alarms pretty constantly between the hours of 5-9am.

And what about privacy? For safety reasons, each capsule isn’t equipped with a door that can be locked from the inside, so instead you get a roll-down blackout curtain. It works better than you would imagine.

A control panel for your capsule

And what about noise? Shinjuku is one of the busiest, most colourful, most vibrant areas in Tokyo (or more accurately, the world), and yet the capsule corridors are probably some of the quietest places in Tokyo. Soundproofing is taken very seriously here.

Having said all this, there’s a lot more to these hotels than the capsules themselves (however, maintaining privacy kind of prohibits any photos of the public spaces). An entire floor is taken up by a good 100 capsules, but the other floors contain lockers for your belongings, a social space, a small café and the all-important onsen baths (more in that in another post!).

A typical corridor of capsules

I was one of the maybe 1% of the hotel’s guests who were western. The rest included natives like businessmen making a quick stopover on their way to another major city. So keep your eyes peeled; capsule hotels tend to congregate around train stations for easy access at the end of a long night.

Some of the capsule hotels had an even more space-age appearance; the 9h nine hours capsule hotel in Kyoto being particularly notable. These capsules even featured a special alarm clock, that silently woke you up by gradually increasing the intensity of the light in the capsules. It worked perfectly.

Name any sci-fi film; this corridor of capsules would fit right in – 9h nine hours capsule hotel, Kyoto

This particular hotel is a perfect exhibit of one of the surprising features of pretty much all capsule hotels; brilliantly clean and well-maintained bathrooms and public spaces.

Pristine – 9h nine hours capsule hotel, Kyoto

So all in all, would I recommend trying a capsule hotel? Forget bucket list; the capsule hotels I visited were genuinely nice – and great value – places to stay.

Top tip: pack light if possible; some capsule hotels don’t have a separate secure space for large items of luggage. In which case, you’ll have to squeeze it into the wafer-thin lockers provided! Been there, done that.

10 Remarkable Things About Japan

Remarkable Japan – #01 – Buildings that Sway

Japan is notorious for its earthquakes, with the continued steady return to normality still ongoing after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011. In light of this, the obvious question would be to ask why Japan continues to build skyscrapers on the scale shown in the images below. Indeed, the 2011 quake increased demand for living space in shorter and wider buildings.

Looking up at skyscrapers towering over the business district in Ginza, Tokyo

The problem remains however, that 70% of Japan’s land mass is mountainous, and therefore unsuitable for urban development. If you can’t build out, you build up.

The Tokyo Skytree; all 634 metres of it

What makes these skyscrapers remarkable is not their shear height, or their elevators that travel up to 10 metres per second, but their ability to sway ominously in the midst of earthquakes that would raze most modern cities to the ground. Many of these, including the Tokyo Skytree, owe most of this seismic protection to ‘tuned mass dampers’, that keep the lateral dance of these buildings within safe magnitudes. Having said that, the yet-unfinished Skytree swayed at its topmost point by up to six metres during the 2011 quake.

The Blade-Runner-esque Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

It’s well worth it in the end. In the strongest earthquake to hit Tokyo since the aftershocks of the 2011 quake, a 2014 earthquake left not a single pane of glass out of place in the business district of Ginza.

Deep in the heart of the Ginza business district, Tokyo
Towering residential blocks in Ueno, Tokyo
Even in the lower skylines of the backstreets of Tokyo, it’s well worth taking a moment to look up. Why put all the electrical cables above rather than under ground? The easier the access to a fault caused by a strong earthquake, the sooner it can be fixed.

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A canopy of cables in the backstreets of Tokyo

Despite the great efforts that go into supplying a new building with the necessary flexibility to withstand the next major quake, there are always exceptions to the rule. There are rumours that the ‘Flamme d’Or’ topping the pint glass-shaped Asahi Beer Hall was originally designed to point upwards like the flame of a candle. It was allegedly closer to its construction that it was turned to its side, to prevent injury in the case that it fell off during an earthquake. Having said that, I can’t find any source that validates this rumour!

The Asahi Beer Hall in Sumida, Tokyo (Photo Credit). The flame was unfortunately covered in scaffolding whilst I was visiting.